Mark Tremonti and Myles Kennedy have been honing their guitar double act in Alter Bridge for the best part of two decades. As they sit together in the bar of London’s Royal Garden Hotel, they laugh when Myles says, “We’ve been playing together for so long, we’ve now morphed into one being!”
Tremonti has long been celebrated as one of the finest and most articulate guitarists of his generation, and while Kennedy is most famous for his four-octave vocal range – displayed both in Alter Bridge and in Slash’s solo band – he’s also a skilful guitarist in his own right.
Their guitars are front and centre on the new Alter Bridge album Pawns & Kings. Produced once again by the band’s longtime collaborator Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette, the album is focused on what Myles calls “meat and potatoes” guitar riffs, with a bare minimum of extraneous textures and instrumentation.
As Mark explains: “A lot of times in the past, we used to have a string or a keyboard underneath to boost the music up, but on this record, we got rid of all that stuff. It sounds like the guitars are breathing. They’re open and they have all this space to live.”
For this reason, he adds, “People keep saying that this is our heaviest record yet.” But beyond the abundance of abrasive, interlocking dual-guitar riffage, there is much more to Pawns & Kings.
“I think this is maybe our most involved record,” Mark says. “Out of all of the records, if somebody listened to it cold, it’d be the hardest to grasp right out of the gate because there are so many twists and turns. As an artist, you’re trying to not let the listener go: ‘This is Alter Bridge. It’s going to do this, and then it’s going to do that.’ We want to keep people guessing.”
And what also resonates powerfully in this new album is the shared conviction between Tremonti and Kennedy for conveying meaning in their songs.
On Pawns & Kings they deftly balance a hard-hitting instrumental attack against deep lyricism, anthemic choruses against introspective verses, and moments of self-restraint against explosive displays of fretboard fireworks. “One of the hardest dances to do is to make something heavy and technical and still emotional at the same time,” Mark says. “But unless the song means something to you, there’s no point.”
One of the more surprising elements of the new Alter Bridge album is how Tremonti and Kennedy have shaken up their ‘traditional’ roles. While it might once have been safe to assume that lead guitar duties would fall naturally to Tremonti, the precise call-and-response soloing on the album’s title track and the eight and a half minute epic Fable Of The Silent Sun makes it hard to decipher exactly who’s playing what.
And although Myles describes himself, with tongue in cheek, as “the sensitive ponytail guy” of the band, he is the author of many of this record’s heaviest riffs – including the moshpit-starting groove of Silver Tongue and the foreboding clangour of album opener This Is War.
Myles acknowledges that it’s Mark’s exemplary right hand chops that truly animate these riffs. “It’s kind of like James Hetfield,” he explains. “Some guys have it. It’s an aggression. When I’d go in to track my part it was like, ‘I can’t wait to hear Mark play over the top and add his attack because it’ll help bring it to life.’”
Myles also reveals that when the pair descend into drop tunings, he opts for thick strings so that the “intonation is tighter,” while Mark is more likely to use a lighter gauge and allow the strings to “flop around” – thus differentiating their tones. Reaching for a colourful analogy, he explains: “It’s like when you get hit in the gut. If you’re a bigger person, it bounces around. That’s part of what makes that sound.”
For tone and technique, Mark asserts that it’s well worth reassessing the itty bitty pieces of triangular plastic that guitarists often take for granted. Picks, he says, are “the thing that you’re interacting most with on your guitar. It’s how you touch the guitar so it’s important.”
Having recently embarked on a quest to “try every pick ever made” and see if a change could help him play better and dig in more, he found new favourites in Dunlop’s 1mm and 1.35mm Flow guitar picks. “It made a huge difference,” he enthuses. “Now I can’t look back.”
For all his dedication to his craft, his precise and methodical approach to the guitar, Mark doesn’t feel the need to flaunt his status as a guitar hero. The album’s introspective ballad Stay – on which he sings lead – is one of a handful of tracks that doesn’t contain a solo.
“After being known as a guitar player for so many years, I always feel pressure, like I have to live up to something,” he explains. “Being a writer excites me way more than being a lead guitar player.” He has come a long way as an artist since his formative years as a speed metal buff. “If I just spent my time sitting down, 100 per cent trying to be an excellent guitar player, you might hear a very different, more technically proficient guitar player, but I’d much rather create songs.”
Conversely, Myles has keenly embraced the opportunity to shred more on Pawns & Kings, and even got himself a bespoke new tool for the job. During his solo summer tour, he was spotted rocking a sleek black PRS-built take on a Fender classic, and while an initial probe for details elicits a tongue-in-cheek, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he gleefully divulges that this is indeed a new prototype made to his exacting specifications.
The semi-secret project came about after the 2021 release of his second solo record, The Ides Of March, which he cut using a selection of vintage Telecasters. Not wanting to subject the valuable instruments to touring, and as a longtime player of PRS guitars, he called upon “Paul and the gang” to help him develop an alternative.
“We riffed for a long time and they found this sound that was in my head,” he says. “I have a real fondness for those early Telecasters, so you always wonder if there’s a way you can combine elements with a more contemporary approach in something that would be very versatile. It’s like a P-90 meets an old Blackguard-era Telecaster sound.”
Myles used the guitar for all of his solos and the majority of his rhythm tracks on the record. “It cuts – it’s all there,” he enthuses. “It’s got its own place, especially with Mark who’s using humbuckers. It helped distinguish the sound.”
Myles stops short of calling it a signature model, and in regards to a consumer roll-out he teases: “We’ll just have to see how it plays out.” But things feel positive, with his bandmate already staking out a spot at the front of the queue: “It’s not just for him,” Mark laughs. “I’m getting one given to me!”
Of course, the star of Mark’s collection is his own PRS Tremonti signature model. In fact, the only time you’ll hear him without one is if a particular riff calls for a baritone chug. With its high output humbuckers and single cut body shape, we’re best off, he suggests, thinking of it as “a modernised version of a Les Paul.”
He adds: “I hate to say it’s more refined because there are so many great Les Pauls. But a perfect analogy for it is if you took an old hot rod from back in the ’60s and put a brand new drivetrain inside it.”
When it comes to guitar amps, Mark is a genuine aficionado, so there was no chance of travelling light when it came time to hit the studio for Pawns & Kings. “I got my car and put ten amps in there – all my favourites,” he explains. “That’s always one of the most fun days; we do an amp shoot-out and check them all out.”
Those that came out on top this time included his all-new 100-watt signature PRS MT100 (which, he says, will “probably” be released for public consumption in 2023) as well as its baby brother, the nifty PRS MT15 lunchbox valve amp.
A Cornford RK100 also made the cut, alongside a Granophyre from modern metal specialists, Omega Ampworks. Last but by no means least, Mark brought two Dumbles to the high-class amp party, and Myles took a particular shine to one and used it for his solos.
“It’s crazy,” Myles says. “I used an amp that was probably more expensive than my first house.” Indeed, because of their hefty price tags (often fetching upwards of $75,000), these rare and revered creations tend to dwell far out of reach of most players, so we asked the amp expert in chief to distil their magic.
After a considered pause, Mark says: “There’s something that happens when your pick hits the string. It’s this weird sensation that doesn’t happen on other amps for me. It just has this thing. A lot of Dumble clones don’t have it. There are also Dumbles that don’t have it. There’s bad sounding Dumbles and I’ve owned one, but when it’s right, it is the best amp in the world.”
For his rhythm parts, Myles used a Diezel Herbert and a VH4 – a tried and tested combination. Initially, however, it took years of searching for him to find amps that would sit comfortably among the expansive frequencies already occupied by Mark’s well-established sound.
“He uses a lot of real estate sonically and that’s one of the things I loved about his tone when I first heard it,” Myles explains. “The real challenge was finding where I fit in, and it was tough. We didn’t figure it out until we were doing the Blackbird record [in 2007]. We were trying everything. I brought my JCM800s – we had tons – but we kept shooting out. It wasn’t sitting in the right spot or it sounded too similar to what Mark was doing.”
After almost running out of options, Myles recalls how the lightbulb moment came when he stumbled across a Diezel Herbert stashed away in a closet: “We gave it a try, plugged it in and fired up channel two and there it was – all the frequencies that complemented what Mark was doing. I haven’t looked back since.”
Similarly, Myles has also been getting maximum mileage out of a favourite stomp box – a “big blue” Line 6 MM4 Modulation Modeller, used for many of the cleaner, more ambient textures on the new record. He laughs, “I don’t even know if they still make them, but there’s this one sound I programmed back around 2000, and I’ve done my best to make sure I don’t ever lose it.”
Armed with their respective weapons of choice, Alter Bridge will be touring arenas this winter – a thought that was never far from mind when Pawns... was being written. “When we write a record, we know we’re going to play it live,” Mark says. “We like the ballads but we also like to rock. Heavy equals energy – and energy equals a great show!”
- Pawns & Kings is out now via Napalm Records.